“What will I do if a car appears coming straight at me from the opposite direction?” I asked myself as I drove cautiously down the one-lane, dirt road into camp. The road to Camp Roosevelt-Firebird is more like a tunnel carved through the dense forest than a road. Look right, there’s a ditch and trees to crash into. Look left, the same. The canopy of trees hides the sun and gives the feeling of definitely being out of the city and suburbs. As I traveled down the same road just three months ago, I knew there was something great on the other side, and with that being said, I couldn’t wait to get there. At any moment, without warning, I’d see the lake, the farmhouse and the barn. Although, at 15 MPH, that felt a long way out.
My racing mind was instantly relieved as I pulled out of the dense trees to see Leesville Lake and much of Camp Roosevelt-Firebird coming into view. I was excited to see Mary and hear about how camp has been going. I was excited to go be a big kid myself by jumping right in and doing the activities with the kids. As my excitement mounted, I thought about how the kids must have felt riding two hours on a bus, cutting through the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains, and driving down the narrow camp road through the dense forest. Were they relieved like me to see camp? Were they anxious? Were they excited? Their journey will take them completely out of their comfort zone, away from the familiar places they seldom – or never – leave, and put them in a destination they’ve never seen before. And let me tell you, it’s rustic.
Just three hours ago, I deplaned at CLE after a quick trip to New York for our quarterly business review. Tired and drained from the travel and the long meetings, I debated whether I’d make the trip to camp. I was behind in catching up with the team and buried in email. Mary would be disappointed, but she’d understand if I didn’t make the trek. Of course she’d understand – she’s the most selfless person I know. Identifying my worries as self-centered, I reminded myself that this isn’t for me. As a husband, as a board member, as someone who worked hard to get the kids to camp, I needed to suck it up, pack a bag, and get in my car. I’m glad I did.
The camp was transformed from what it was just three months ago. In April, when we made the trip to first see the camp to consider it for Footpath, it was cold, lifeless and empty. The ground was torn up to accommodate a new sewage system. The girls cabins and bathroom were littered with dirt and debris from replacing the roof. Everything was dusty, and seemed so dated. In general, it seemed so rustic, so dirty.
Stepping out of the car, I took a deep breath of the fresh air and swiveled my head around 360 degrees. The camp looked different, it felt different, it was different. It was alive. Looking slightly left toward the lake, countless orange life vests bobbed in the swimming area of the lake with happy voices reverberating 300 yards back to me. Looking straight ahead, the ga-ga pit had a dust cloud above it and was filled with competition and laughter. Looking hard right, kids surrounded a bucket of blue dye into which they dipped their rubber-banded t-shirts, while themselves, surrounded by drying tie-dyed shirts on lines connected by trees. Just beyond them, boys were playing basketball. They ran up and down the court and jawed at one another.
Voices filled the air. Happy voices. Activity was everywhere. The camp was alive. Kids were being kids. I was instantly happy. Happy we put in the work. Happy we pulled it off. Happy for the kids. As I took it all in, I heard my favorite voice saying, “You made it!” Mary was making her way to me. After a sweaty, smelly, dust-covered greeting from Mary, and quick hug from my sister-in-law, Medea, I went right to the boys playing basketball.
“What’s up, guys? Can I play?” Almost at once, each one shouted, “You’re on my team!”
Here’s the thing, among a group of adults, I’m getting picked last every time. I’m 5’5”, can’t dribble and can’t shoot. Think of me like Matthew Dellavedova; I play strong defense and get under people’s skin. Conversely, among a group of 10 – 13 year old boys, I’m one of the taller guys. However, it isn’t my height or potential greatness on the court they saw in me. As I’ve learned over the years in working with the boys at camp, more important than being a strong pickup for basketball, I’m an adult male. With my gray hair, they probably assume an old one too. Guys like me can be scarce in their lives. Accordingly, it’s simple supply and demand. Adult males are in demand, and I happen to be one.
I play basketball with several of the boys. Artiss, Montrell and Darion are intense. One of them says James Harden is their favorite player. All of them are mad that Kyrie requested to be traded. Some can really play. I legitimately try my best, but one-on-three is difficult for someone who can’t dribble or shoot – even against kids. So, they win.
One of the boys has an amazing catch and release shot. Accordingly, I start calling him Steph Curry and we run catch and shoot drills. I feed him. He catches and shoots. I feed him. He catches and shoots. I feed him. He catches and shoots. He’s really into it. I’m really into it. The kids agree, he’s like Steph Curry. He responds to the positive reinforcement I’m feeding him with each release. I could see the confidence build as he hit the majority of the last few shots.
It was time for the next activity. Artiss insists that I go to archery with him. INSISTS. I’m super happy about that. Listen, I want to be accepted just as badly as them. So I head over to archery with Artiss and others.
At our house, we have many rituals with our kids. One of them being how we run down our day. Mary and I read an article a couple of years ago outlining how to facilitate a meaningful conversation each day with your children. It simply consists of asking these five questions:
- What was your high of the day?
- What was your low of the day?
- What was something you did that was kind?
- What was something you did that was brave?
- What was something that you tried today, and failed at first?
It isn’t hard to figure out what these questions are driving. Highs and lows are ways to really learn about what’s going on with your kids and how they perceive it. Asking about being kind, brave and failing reinforces the core values of kindness, bravery, and trying new things with failing being part of the process, respectively.
I pulled up at the at one of the boys’ tables, looked around at the group, and realized that I knew what to do: ask them the five questions.
- Highlights included canoeing, fishing, and mountain biking. It’s important to note that all of these activities were facilitated by the owner the of the camp himself.
- Low of the day? No one had one.
- Kind things included listening when others talked, including kids who were being left out, and cheering up someone who was homesick.
- Brave items included getting in a canoe and drinking from the spring in the lake.
- Archery was among the things they tried and initially didn’t do well.
More important than their answers, they were really engaged by the process. They were each eager to share their answers with me. It was really great.
Artiss – my main man…
Artiss quickly endeared himself to me. If we weren’t directly engaging, I noticed him close by me. Between dinner and the campfire, Mary and I were interacting with some of the kids by the swings – just killing time. Two girls and Artiss were all sitting on the swings. A game I like to play with my girls is standing close enough to the swings so they think they can touch my face with their toes at the top of the arc as they swing. When I say “touch” I’m pretty sure they’re trying their hardest to kick me. As such, I was playing the same game with the girls who were swinging. That game morphed into me holding my hand high and actually letting them kick it at the top of the arc.
The girls were having fun. It wasn’t crazy fun, but the same kind of passing the time we do at home in our yard. However, I couldn’t get Artiss to join in. After trying to prod him into joining us a few times, and watching his body language, it hit me: he can’t swing.
Artiss is 13. He’s roughly my size. So he’s not big, but he’s a big kid. I wait until the girls leave, and say to him, “You can’t swing, right?” He gives me a that look of “you got it” and shakes his head side to side saying “no.”
“Do you want me to teach you?” I ask him. He’s in.
Here’s the thing: it’s super easy to teach a 13 year old how to pump. My girls struggled at three/four years old because it was difficult for them to turn the verbal directions into physical mechanics. Artiss had it in minutes. He was so happy. I was so happy. There he was pumping, swinging, and smiling away.
The theme for the campfire that night was friendship. The owner of the camp, Joe, and I each gave a talk about friendship. A group of kids performed a play. And some of the counselors played songs. The highlight of the fire was by far the key log ceremony.
Each camper had the opportunity to throw a twig into the fire and thank someone for anything they felt was significant during their camp experience. The most-thanked person was by far Joe. Joe, in his mid fifties is a fatherly figure to the group. I personally saw him do the following in the short time I was there:
Fall off the pontoon boat and onto rocks while fishing with a group of kids
Sternly reprimand the kids for talking during his talk on friendship telling them it was rude to interrupt when someone was telling a story.
Ask, “Do you want to go home?” multiple times when kids weren’t doing what they were supposed to be doing or weren’t where they were supposed to be.
Here’s the thing: they loved the boundaries he set for them and the interaction he had with them. LOVED it. So many of the kids specifically recognized the work Joe put into being with them and making it a great experience for them. They used falling in the lake as an example, giving them rules, mountain biking with them, and more.
Around 10:30, I climbed back in my car and started the trip down the dark camp road toward home. It was a long day, it was going to be a long drive, and I was glad I made the journey.
My main takeaways were the following:
- We’re making real impact on kids who want it.
- Doing for others means sacrificing currencies. The currencies are time, money and effort. I sometimes hit deception with this – feeling that we’re spending too much time on the Foundation. We plow time, money and effort into it. If not us, then who?
- It was amazing how quickly the kids built trust and how much they wanted the interaction. I had meaningful interactions in a very short period of time. Seeing the appreciation they showed for Joe, the structure he provided them, and the time he spent with them was amazing.
- There are human beings whose greatest limiting factor is the neighborhood to which they are born. Not a single kid with whom we engaged said he/she wanted to be a doctor, lawyer, dentist, CEO, engineer, etc. They all wanted to be basketball players. You can’t be what you can’t see. That’s why we do this – to expand the universe for these kids. It’s amazing to see it happening.
- Lastly, I just love being outside. It’s much bigger than our small lives. As such, it gives such perspective.
So many children are anxiously awaiting the opportunity to experience all of the gifts summer camp can offer.
By Brian Macias, Footpath Board of Directors